Let’s explore a topic or two together

As regular readers may have noticed, I pick up little series from time to time. They’re often things that are getting overlooked, such as renewable heat, or the ecological impact of meat. Or they aim to take a discussion from sustainability circles and explain it in layman’s terms, as I’ve done with negative emissions recently, or the planetary boundaries.

Generally speaking I’m just following my own curiosity on these matters and sometimes they end up as a series, sometimes they just join the general sprawl of things I write about, and sometimes it goes no further. As an experiment though, I thought I might tell you about a couple of topics in advance, and see if we can collaborate a little. Here are two I’m interested in at the moment, and some of the questions I’m looking to answer.

  1. Automation: there’s a growing recognition that there’s a new wave of automation coming down the pipe, one that could potentially put millions of people out of work. So I’d like to know how real or how speculative that might be, who would be affected and what the consequences are. Who benefits and who suffers? How will it affect sustainability, equity, and development? How do we adapt? Or this is all a science fiction scenario and there are more important things to think about?
  2. Transport: the transition to a low carbon electricity supply is underway, but on the transport front we’re still very reliant on oil. I’ve written much more on housing and energy than I have about transport, so I feel like I have some rebalancing to do. How do we decarbonise the transport system? Which countries are making the most progress? How can the pace of change be accelerated? What unusual solutions can we find? Are there any leapfrogging opportunities for developing countries?

I’m doing some reading around those topics at the moment, and I’d welcome your suggestions. What have you read that’s been helpful? Any thinkers, ideas, reports, perspectives, case studies I should be aware of? Don’t worry if you haven’t got a solution to hand either, you can add your own questions, fears or hopes, expressions of frustration or indifference.

You can drop them in the comments below, post them on Twitter or Facebook, or email me at Jeremy@makewealthhistory.org – and thank you to those who already send me things. I’ll have a look at what comes in, do a little round-up of where we’re at, and we’ll see what happens.


  1. Automation: it will require alot of electricity. It had better be green power! But existing ways of doing jobs / making things also use alot of power. I wonder which uses most?

    Computers, I recall, were to lead to a life of leisure for us all… That didn’t happen, as new things became possible, new jobs were invented (and ways of wasting time). My guess is that much the same will happen again.

    Regarding transport, there will almost certainly be several systemic changes happening in parallel; increasing efficiency of existing technologies, leading to a mix of propulsion systems by 2050; for cars there are likely to be electric vehicles for short journeys, plug in hybrids for ‘normal’ use and pure ‘conventional’ cars for business use. We assumed a roughly equal market split when drafting business plans for Libralato Engines when I was a director (www.libralato.co.uk – a prototype, totally different sort of rotary engine giving diesel performance on petrol). A step change in energy storage systems (not just batteries…), much faster charging.

    I doubt in the UK we will be building hugely greater capacity into our railways due to financial and planning constraints. Nor do I see a much greater percentage of the population cycling.

    Much will depend on how we will be are able to reduce the need / wish to travel, due to improved virtual reality etc on the one hand, and rising cost of travel (eg the Greens Frequent Flyer Levy, being championed in an early day motion by Caroline Lucas right now), increasing fossil fuel costs etc. Neo-liberal economics, globalisation, willfully ignoring carbon & other emissions etc all drive up the desire to ship goods a long way, so the radical answer is to change our prevailing global economic model to one that puts much more value on local production & consumption, thus reducing transport needs.

    Final thought: if aviation stays roughly at current levels, and we cut carbon emissions greatly from heating, power generation and other transport types, maybe we could allow planes to run on fossil fuels quite alot longer.

    1. I do think it is interesting how we have conversations about how technology and computers haven’t created a life of leisure while at the same time there is hand wringing that automation will destroy millions of jobs. There are two faces of the exact same coin, we would only have the leisure because the machines are doing the work.

    2. Electrification is an important part of this story, that’s for sure. And parallel changes sounds likely too. Thanks for the link to Libralato, I didn’t know you were involved in that.

      Yes, it looks highly likely that other forms of transport will need to cut emissions further in order to allow aviation, though apparently we’re doing that without any kind of discussion.

  2. I think electric cars will remain for the rich for at least the next decade or two. The average age of cars on the road is at least 10 years (in Australia, anyway), and we’re probably 5 years away from price parity between electric and petrol cars. That’s15 years until 1/2 the cars are electric. (this assumes a continuation of BAU and 100% uptake of electric cars when they reach price parity — questionable!)

    I think that bicycles, ebikes and public transport can pick up a *lot* of this. ebikes are just amazing, and are so cheap (like: 1/50th the cost to run of an ecar).

    Cheers, Angus

    Cheers, Angus

    1. Good points, and I guess that’s why countries that have incentive schemes for electric cars are moving fastest here.

      I don’t know much about e-bikes. I will add that to the list of things to consider.

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