The 'energy debate' is really a revolution in what we think about everything

In August 2013, in an effort to convince the population of north-west England that "fracking" (drilling for shale gas) was good for them, British Prime Minister David Cameron assured everyone they would save several pounds on each month's energy bill. Like Margaret Thatcher (who said "there is no such thing as society") or George W Bush (who told Americans that the best response to 9/11 was to go shopping), Cameron believes he leads a nation of passive consumers. Justifying fracking – by then controversial due to earthquakes – on the basis of saving enough energy money to buy something more frivolous was the end of the argument as far as he was concerned. But the Anglican Bishops meeting in Liverpool fired back that this was not about saving a few quid on energy bills. The real issue, they insisted, is our "responsibility as stewards of the Earth".

This difference of opinion exemplifies a seismic cultural shift currently in progress: from a society based on consumerism to one that embraces stewardship and sharing. This shift will have far-reaching consequences for our economy and our personal lives. We are still in the early stages of the transition because consumerism is so strongly based on the oil and gas on which our world still depends. But as the use of renewable energy increases, so too grows the culture of stewardship.

Each energy source brings certain cultural values with it, either because of what we have to do to get it (as with coal) or by virtue of the attitudes and beliefs that it fosters (as with oil and gas). Coal gave us the industrial discipline of production; the apparent plenitude of oil and gas gave us the expansive confidence of the early culture of consumption. Renewable energy brings with it a powerful message of stewardship and an abiding concern with sustainability. As renewable energy increasingly replaces fossil fuels, I believe stewardship will grow ever stronger and consumerism will decline ever further. 

The so-called "energy debate" is really a shift of cultures. This shift can be seen in many ways and places. Last September in New York the Rockefeller Brothers Fund – yes, those Rockefellers – announced that it was divesting its accounts of fossil fuels. Wealth that Standard Oil created is now being used to support stewardship projects all over the world. In the same month, protesters were arrested for projecting "Koch = Climate Chaos" on the wall of the Metropolitan Museum of Art at the inauguration of a new plaza funded by billionaire climate-change denier David Koch and his brother. The Koch brothers versus the Rockefeller brothers – a battle of titans.

The stakes are high. Consider Venice: already the water is above the stone foundations of that exquisite architecture, and it has begun to leach out the mortar between the porous bricks in the lowest courses. The rising damp is rusting out the iron tie-rods that hold the buildings together with the damage already visible in the 13th-century mosaics in the porch of the Basilica of St Mark's. The Consorzio Venezia Nuova is building flood barriers against storms, but they will not be able to restrain the rising waters as the polar ice cap melts.

Yet the Venice Port Authority continues to grant docking licences to the huge cruise ships (520 booked this year) that push their wakes still further into the magnificent but increasingly fragile structures along the Giudecca Canal, while the city raises small change for repairs by leasing advertising placards that mar St Mark's Square or the Bridge of Sighs. Can some Italian, EU or UN stewardship programme rescue la Serenissima from its literal consumption by cruise ships and big-name brands?

The incoming culture of stewardship can be seen also in our daily lives. Many of us have learned to sort our recyclables from the rest of our rubbish, meet our transport or accommodation needs through the sharing economy and shop for organic foods that have been grown without chemicals. Although the early years were often characterised by negative demands that we renounce our guilty pleasures, the real advantages of "green" living are now becoming apparent. The consumerist family model calls for each member to shop independently for her or his desired commodity. The stewardship ideal brings families closer together as everyone co-operates to save energy throughout the day and night. Though individualism may still flourish, the criterion of an individual's success will not be how much loot she or he has amassed but how effective each is in realising her/his potential to serve as a steward of the planet for the next generation.

Nevertheless, the economic consequences of reducing consumerist behaviour could be dire. What if the number of people willing to camp out all night to buy a new iPhone dwindles? What if the bottom falls out of the market for monster houses and gasoline-guzzling vehicles? Is even fashion imperilled? Will binge shopping someday no longer cheer us up?

The shape of things to come

What will the incoming culture of stewardship look like? It's early yet, but the most obvious models may be found in wind-farming Denmark and geothermal Iceland. Politicians and executives are expected to arrive at work on their bicycles. Those who live further away make up car pools and drive hybrids, parking where they can plug them into electrical outlets. Both their cars and their homes are connected to a two-way grid, so that they can be providers as well as consumers of energy. The sharing economy is an essential feature of stewardship. Since consumption is no longer a core value, ownership is secondary; availability for use is what matters, and people are surprisingly willing to share what they have at a reasonable price. So millions of rooms in homes and apartments all over the world are now available for rental through Airbnb or its competitors. And to the distress of taxi companies, thousands of drivers are happy to make their cars available via Uber wherever that service has been legalised.

The nemesis of stewardship is waste. A US study concluded that as much as 40% of the food stockpiled in the average American refrigerator ends by being thrown away after it passes its best-before date. Americans' preference for centralised air conditioning (as opposed to room-by-room cooling in the rest of the world) means that millions of houses and apartment buildings in hot weather keep every cubic metre cool all day and night, whether they are occupied or not. The culture of stewardship has a long way to go, but the change we need is to a new attitude that questions this profligate squandering of energy, esteems sustainability, and is willing to turn air-con off and on as we move from room to room or leave the house unoccupied. The alternative to waste is sustainability, and it and stewardship have been most vigorously advanced by green architecture and urban planning. Greater downtown density and vertical growth are promoted instead of extending the suburban sprawl that the oil-powered automobile made possible.

That movement is global: as early as 2008 in San Francisco, Milan-based Renzo Piano's atelier created a two-acre living roof of gently sloping hillocks and porthole skylights for the California Academy of Sciences while, on the other side of the Pacific, Pritzker-prize-winning architect Wang Shu's Ningbo History Museum was completed with a million reused bricks and tiles in a traditional Chinese technique called "wapam". Five years later Piano went further, providing his addition to the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, with a sculptured insulating sod roof, 36 geothermal wells 460 feet deep, and aluminium louvres fitted with solar panels that are used to light the galleries by night. The Piano workshop's pavilion will use only half the energy per square foot of the original 1970s building, designed though it was by the great Louis Kahn.

Artists are often more aware of shifts in public consciousness than the rest of us. Even though their work is initially ridiculed, they may be creating the beginnings of the art of stewardship. It's indicative of the pace of the change under way that it has not taken long for some early attempts to be recognised as important works of art. As early as the 1960s in Italy arte povera anticipated the new culture by making art out of rubbish. In 1970 American sculptor Robert Smithson created his Spiral Jetty, a 1,500ft-long black basalt rock walkway into Utah's Great Salt Lake that inaugurated use of the now common term Earth Art. In 2003-4 Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson crafted the genre's most popular piece to date, his Weather Project: a giant sun-like disc glowing through a golden haze of swirling mist that filled Tate Modern's huge turbine hall (a former oil-powered generating station). Young enthusiasts sprawled on the floor of the vast space, basking in the light and wind.

The body is a cultural subject

Equally important to the emergent culture accompanying renewable energy is stewardship of the body. While stewardship of the Earth is a long-range goal that one can share with many others, taking care of one's own body is much more personal and hopefully more manageable. The fitness industry is the major beneficiary of this concern. Fifty years ago only jocks hung out in the gym; now everyone feels that they ought to go for a regular work-out. A hyper-concern with what we put into our bodies is another result of this preoccupation; while vegans grow more numerous every day, restaurants advertise that their menus feature foods of local origin.

Attitudes to sex, which are inherently cultural, are among the beliefs and values about who we are that are most likely to be affected by this cultural shift. Where the consumer culture of the summer of love viewed sex as just another experience to be had as much as possible and enjoyed without risking procreation, the attitude to sex that is incoming with the new energy source clearly respects all varieties of sexuality, approaches casual encounters as an opportunity for exercise designed to keep body, mind and spirit fit, and is more likely to be concerned about the sustainability of a long-term relationship wherever the feeling is mutual.

Acceptance of public nudity is an intriguing correlative of stewardship of the body. Not only feminists are increasingly resistant to the packaging of our bodies as consumables. Parents who think of themselves as stewards of their bodies recognise that an important part of the legacy they want to leave to their children is an easy acceptance of their physical reality and a refusal to accept the fetishism of "private parts". Photographer Spencer Tunick has no difficulty assembling hundreds or thousands of volunteers to strip for his panoramic pictures of naked humanity en masse in public places around the world. His pictures may appear outlandish now, but just like arte povera they may in future be recognised as harbingers of the incoming culture.

A political force

Greens are the obvious political party of stewardship but most progressive alternatives routinely steal features of their platforms. Conservatives are likely to have greater trouble convincing voters of their green credentials, depending on the extent to which they are in league with Big Coal or Big Oil. For their part, many of these corporations are busy rebranding themselves as "energy companies" while developing profitable sidelines in renewables. Last October I was surprised to learn from the head of energy services for the city of Dallas that 8% of its electricity was already coming from the wind farms of northern and western Texas. Some oil-rich governments can surprise us still more: in May the oil minister of Saudi Arabia announced to his colleagues from other oil-producing nations assembled in Paris that by mid-century his country hopes to replace its dependence on oil (currently 25% of all Saudi production) with wind and solar power, both of which are also abundant in Arabia.

The incoming culture is already a political force. Canada's province of Alberta is the home of the infamous tar sands, where Big Oil is exploiting reserves of the bituminous substance that has been called the dirtiest in the world. For 44 years, until the spring of 2015, the Conservative government of this province worked closely with the oil and gas companies, recently by paying Washington lobbyists to try to convince President Obama to give consent to the Keystone pipeline that would carry this product across middle America to low-wage refineries in Louisiana. The last thing anyone – especially the oil companies – expected was the election of a Left-wing government by the voters of this province, many of whom depend either directly or indirectly on fossil fuels for their livelihood. Yet that is what happened this spring, as oil prices plummeted and the provincial New Democratic Party vaulted from four to 54 seats, enough to form a majority government.

Commentators claimed it was a protest vote against the arrogance and complacency of the Conservatives, but the voters passed over several alternative conservative and liberal parties to endorse an NDP platform that proclaimed "jobs and energy", insisting that it's possible to take an environmentally responsible approach to both. New Premier Rachel Notley immediately indicated that while Alberta would continue to support pipelines across Canada the province was withdrawing support for Keystone and would no longer be paying those Washington lobbyists.

How we got here

How can I be so sure that stewardship will triumph? To answer that question, it is necessary to look more closely at the relationship between energy and culture. "Culture" is notoriously difficult to define. It encompasses our behaviour, but also our beliefs and ideas about that behaviour. It can be physical, material, social, political or aesthetic. There are local, regional and national cultures, as well as cultures specific to gender, age or occupation. Everyone is likely to participate in multiple cultures, not just in a lifetime but often in the course of a single day.

But all these cultures depend on the energy sources that make them possible. We are the only species that uses energy sources other than the food we eat and each source of energy brings with it certain cultural values of its own, prioritising attitudes and convictions that we need to accept – not necessarily approve, but certainly accept. These fundamental values will be held in common by all the cultures that depend on that energy source – and energy transition is a powerful engine of cultural change.

The world changed substantially in the late 18th and 19th centuries for all those who lived in those countries where coal and the Industrial Revolution replaced the agrarian society that had preceded it. The British led the way by mining their "underground forest" of pit coal, inventing and perfecting the steam engines that made coal so effective as the means of mass production processes far greater than anyone had ever imagined. As a result, wealth was no longer based on ownership of land; people were now defined in relation to the production process. The production culture that came with coal required an educated and highly disciplined work force with a strong work ethic – valuing work in and for itself. Among the results were public education and an expectation that self-disciplined adolescents would postpone sex until they were past the end of mandatory school age, as well as a ban on pre- or extra-marital sex and a horror of same-sex relationships.

Many people assume that because they are all fossil fuels, oil and gas have simply extended the coal-based culture of production. But oil and gas don't require the disciplined work force of the coal mines or the steam-powered factories that depended on them. A relatively small group of workers, well informed by geologists, can drill the wells that bring the precious fuels to the surface. As long as the energy companies and governments can protect their pipelines, the focus of value shifts from production to consumption. Coal barons constantly worried about strikes, but OPEC meetings don't discuss oil or gas workers; their agenda is focused on demand and supply, and the consequent price per barrel.

Just like stewardship today, this culture of consumption was initially hotly debated. It was in the 1960s that oil and gas began to replace coal as the main source of energy in many countries. Following the course of all other energy transitions, the culture of consumption began to be generally accepted – not necessarily approved but certainly accepted – especially when we were all equipped with plastic (an oil product) credit cards (which started in America as gas station charge cards). People were no longer primarily defined in relation to the production process; citizenship now conveyed a responsibility to support the economy by shopping. For the past 50 years, the values of the culture of consumption have been taken as a given – not only by economists and politicians, but by most of us as well. Coal brought us universal education; oil and gas brought us universal credit.

The self-discipline demanded by coal and the industrial revolution was relaxed, culminating in the counter-culture that extended not just to commodities but much more profoundly to consumable experiences, and to which sex was just another such experience. Chemical-medical research made it possible for this particular experience to be enjoyed without risking procreation. The summer of love and the "sexual revolution" were the result.

Whereas alcoholic inebriation had been the favoured means of escape from industrial discipline, in the incoming culture of consumption, illicit drugs, which had formerly been indulged only by bohemian musicians or writers, now went mainstream as a way to alleviate the eventual boredom of being just a consumer. Timothy Leary urged young people especially to turn on and drop out. For older customers as well, consumption became not just a matter of buying a commodity but one of acquiring an experience. By the 1970s the "experience economy" was upon us.

Andy Warhol was the genius of the culture of consumption, already understanding its implications in the early 1960s. His brilliant use of the screened images of his portrait subjects – Marilyn, Jackie, Liz, Elvis or Mao – showed as surely as his Campbell's soup cans and Brillo boxes that branding now defined personality. His colour variants on these images evoked the complete range of each repeated portrait's character – Marilyn is sometimes sassy in pink or purple, but in other versions, often on the same canvas, she may be ominously darkened. We know why. Warhol also predicted that in the future everyone would be famous for 15 minutes: he understood that in the regnant culture of consumption something like YouTube was inevitable.

What is going to happen next?

Renewable energy is still a long way from assuming dominance comparable to the role that oil and gas have played over the past century or that coal acquired before that. There are serious technical and financial problems in implementing renewables on the scale that we need them. Now that fracking has extended the life expectancy of our oil and gas dependence by at least several decades, the big energy companies and the governments that protect them have much less motivation to respond to these challenges.

Germany originally led the way, with the Reichstag passing a bill as early as the year 2000 that established a two-way grid, including payment to the owners of buildings that fed energy back into the system. As an early reward, German manufacturers initially led world production of solar panels. But the technical and financial challenges have mounted, China has taken over leadership in the production and export of solar panels, and in some extreme instances German industry has turned back to coal. Energy transition takes decades, sometimes centuries, and the road ahead will not be straight and clear. One complication is the alternative of nuclear energy, which is indelibly associated with the culture of anxiety. It is, after all, the first energy source since fire to come to us as an agent of mass destruction.

China presents an interesting case that will be fascinating to watch as it evolves. Communist Party ideology originates with the culture of transformation that accompanied electrification. Yet statistically today the People's Republic remains dependent on coal (much of which comes from Australia or Mongolia), fostering a still disciplined working class with a powerful work ethic. But recently China signed a multi-billion-rouble deal with Russia to import natural gas over the next 30 years. At the same time China is installing lots of the solar panels that it manufactures, and is covering its western plains with vast wind farms. So each of the cultures that accompany these energy sources – production, transformation, consumption, and stewardship – are in contention.

China's stupendous economic success over the past three decades has provided ample disposable income to residents of the big cities, and has drawn many millions off the farms, ready to work for even a small proportion of an ever bigger bowl of rice. With so many having been raised from abject poverty to comparative affluence, it is not surprising that the culture of consumption prevails in the shops and on the streets of Shanghai, Beijing or the nation's other thronging cities.

But the culture of stewardship may not be long in coming: the government has announced that its long-term goal is a "circular economy," one in which every product will be recyclable, with all waste being reclaimed and the real energy costs of all manufacturing accounted for. The recent China-US discussion of an agreement to pursue environmental goals together stands as a promising challenge that could point to a bright future for the culture of stewardship of the Earth if both countries will follow through with it.

As goes China, so goes the world. As long as we continue to use any energy source – including the ancient and earliest ones – the cultural values associated with each source of energy will continue to influence us in proportion to our dependence on that energy source. The culture of consumption is not about to disappear, nor should it, given its importance in ameliorating the lives of millions in much of the developing world. Thanks to fracking, oil and gas will be available as much as we want it until at least mid-century.

On the other hand, global warming is real and the pressure to transition to renewable energy is urgent everywhere. If millions of Indians now riding bicycles start driving cars, and if the countries of the South start following the example of air-conditioned Singapore, the implications for survival of the planet make long-range optimism difficult. Yet who would deny India and other developing countries the opportunity to improve the lives of their populations?

The inescapable conclusion is that it must be possible to sustain such global development with renewable energy, stimulating the culture of stewardship and gradually reducing the culture of consumption to the status of a quaint habit that characterised the very peculiar people who lived in the latter part of the 20th and the first few decades of the 21st century. It may or may not be a brave new world, but it has to become a sustainable one.

Barry Lord is the author of Art & Energy: How Culture Changes (AAM Press), and co-founder of Lord Cultural Resources