Metaphor and Imagination in Energy Policy

A few blogs ago, I described the mapmaker’s art as part of a larger social endeavour. 

What strikes me time and again in looking at old maps, atlases, portolans and sea charts is the imagination permeating each the page.  Represented in two dimensions is a snapshot of what someone thinks the world looks like. It seems conceptual, frozen in time.

However, narrative is not frozen in time; it has a before and an after. Wouldn’t be much of a story if it just stood in one place. Instead, it flows from a past (imaginings) to a future (by definition, imagined). Narrative cannot therefore be freed of imagination. 

In discussing policy issues, many people these days speak of “the narrative” being an important constituent of the policy’s credibility and definitely as part of its public communication.

In energy policy, today’s narrative is all about climate change and how we can reverse its impacts by reducing carbon emissions. The policy narrative, like all good moral stories, has an end it, a desired goal – a “zero emissions economy” by 2050.

Imagination plays a strong role here. We visualize our society functioning on carbon-free energy. Many emphasize (or assume) that these sources are exclusively renewable in nature. The metaphor is green. Everything green must be renewable; everything renewable must be green.

Let’s go back to old maps to see where this lead us. 

We start with the mapmaker – the person who listens to what the explorer has witnessed on the outer reaches of the known world (and the beginning of imagined worlds lying beyond). Before setting the tale down on a two-dimensional piece of paper, he imagines what the explorer saw.

But not all is subjective, purely in the mind. The explorer has taken measurements, logged information, conjectured, on the basis of empirical observation, what lies just beyond his line of sight. These data also permeate and inform the narrative.

Fast forward to energy policy and communication in today’s world. There are those who want government policy to be “evidence-based”, not simply aspirational.  Yet we shouldn’t completely exclude one from the other. In developing and implementing energy and climate change policies, we have to combine the two.

Yes, compelling narratives are needed to inspire the public to imagine a different, brighter future. And yes, solid, fact-based, engineered solutions are needed to provide the means of making the desired goal a reality.

The early European explorers of Canada believed there was a navigable, open northwest passage through which one could sail from Atlantic to Pacific – and thence to Asia.

However, when you read the explorers’ and sailors’ accounts of their vain searches, you see the hard reality they encountered. Ice floes crushed them, moving with the tides. Horrible conditions, ill-dressed and prepared for long winters with ships completely frozen and little food or warmth. Scurvy, despair and starvation struck them down.

But, somehow, they also made many observations and factual recordings of tides, conditions, sea depth, flora, locating their positions by stars and instruments. Science and engineering were the only means to reach the noble, hoped-for outcomes.

In energy and climate change policy we set the noble, imagined outcomes. But how do we engineer them?

Many Canadians share the goal of a carbon-constrained future.They can imagine it; they understand and support it. But the narrative is sometimes thin on the “how do we get there”. Repeating you want a green future is simply brandishing a metaphor.

That is why I believe we need to integrate imagination with practical, engineered, science-based solutions. I would like to see Canada’s energy and climate change policies shift more strongly into the reality realm.

If we are to reach the goal of zero emissions by 2050, then realism suggests using where possible technologies that are proven capable of significantly reducing emissions in remarkably short times (as in France, Sweden, Ontario).

That technology is nuclear power. It is not the only clean energy technology we need; but it is indispensable if we are seriously intent on achieving the goal.

Our policies mapping the way forward need imagination, yes. But imagination alone won’t let us find, let alone successfully and quickly traverse, the passage to zero emissions. There’s still reality to take into account.