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Storytelling and our energy future

So recently, an unlikely thing happened: I got tapped to help shape the future of my country’s energy policy. Through storytelling.

This whole adventure part of a Government of Canada initiative called Generation Energy, which has been gathering information and opinions from experts, activists, and as many members of the public as they could tempt into completing surveys. The basic challenge is two fold: the power system – particularly the grid -- is aging, and the planet is heating up. We clearly need a big public investment to build a future power system. And it clearly should be greener – or at least, lighter on the carbon – than one we have now. But the specific steps we should take, now and in the future – that’s far from clear.

I am not a scientist, not an engineer, not a policy maker. Through one thing and another (long-ago research interests, more recent science writing work, writing a novel with a climate change backstory) I know more about climate change than most people, but even there I’m not an expert. I was pulled in to help spot assumptions and ask smart people irritating questions.

But I do have something to say. And it’s this.

I think we need a story.

The best part of Generation Energy for me was being on the podcast Metis in Space. Picture it: me, two heavy-hitting research scientists, two Metis women from the future, the federal minister of science (really!) and a four-month-old baby. You have to hear it. Spoiler: it’s awesome.

This is part of what I had to say, as cleaned up in my notebook:

We can see the disaster coming. The engineer of the Titanic was aboard the Titanic. Had the blueprints and knew exactly what was happening as the ship was going done. Likewise there’s a real sadness and desperation among the climate scientists and energy scientists that I talk to. Yet, they are also inspiring, because they all have this “but we could do this” solutions on hand.

[Going carbon-free] is going to be hard. It’s going to be desperately hard and we need to start now. But one of the things we are lacking right now is the renewable energy Star Trek. We need the positive optimistic vision of the decarbonized future. Not just a decarbonized version of what we’ve got now, but a different story with more voices involved.

But we don’t have that. We don’t have that story in the public consciousness. We have the fear, but we don’t have the story.”

Stories can make a difference, even in something as hard-science as power systems.

I can prove that, in fact. In 1979, the movie The China Syndrome featured a nuclear plant in meltdown. On screen, the actors say that a total meltdown could render “an area the size of Pennsylvania" permanently uninhabitable. Eleven days later, a nuclear plant in Pennsylvania called Three Mile Island suffered the worst accident in US nuclear power history. That moment – the movie, plus the accident, plus the eerie coincidence of “Pennsylvania” – was a turning point. The US began to turn its back on nuclear power, right there. And that’s the power of storytelling.

So as we begin to rework our power systems, we need stories to inspire us. And those stories should – must – include more voices than the last set of stories we told.

For instance: Canada’s electrical power system is also our social power system, made manifest. It extracts resources from the (mostly poor and indigenous) North, and provides them to the (richer and whiter) South. Meanwhile many Native and Northern communities rely on diesel. If we reinvent the grid, we don’t want to recreate that grid.

I hope many Canadians – especially young Canadians – will take a minute to add their voices to this conversation.

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