So many consumers. Is there a silver lining?

Is there a positive side to consumption?

One of our Great Energy Challenge advisers, Dan Kammen, of the World Bank and UC Berkeley, raised that question in a brainstorming session on questions to ask the panelists here at Aspen Environmental Forum 2011. The sessions are focused on the strain on the planet as population nears 7 billion.

I wasn’t sure I understood how consumption ever could be an advantage in the search for environmental solutions—but now that I was listening for it, I began hearing examples.

At a session on clean coal (entitled “Oxymoron or Salvation?”), Jim Rogers, the outspoken chief executive of Duke Energy, talked about his company’s two partnerships in China—with the nation’s largest utility, Huaneng Group, and with the private company, ENN Group. As I’ve heard Rogers say before, he believes that it is in China that the technology will be developed to make carbon capture work in electric power. With so many consumers and so much growing consumption, China is spurred to innovate to find a coal solution at large scale.

“They are scaling because they have an economic imperative to provide universal access to electricity,” Rogers said. “As a consequence, I believe they are creating what I would characterize as the intellectual property of scaling. That is probably a more powerful (intellectual property) than the technology itself.”

In the United States, Rogers said, we don’t feel that impetus; we already had our drive for innovation to provide universal access to electricity more than 50 years ago.

Another example is the work of MIT researcher Daniel Nocera, who has developed a technology for storing solar power using artificial photosynthesis. In our small group at dinner, he talked about how he was working to do the field testing in India. With 500 million people who still have no electricity, India has a huge market, need and opportunity to test and deploy this technology in the field.  (See Nocera’s work in a photo gallery on solar energy in National Geographic magazine.)

Of course, the breakthroughs that Nocera, Duke, or any other innovators realize in the testing ground of the developing world can be brought back to make life better and energy cleaner in the developed world. In that way, our lack of need is a kind of impoverishment. And that’s one way that for new technology development, consumption can be an advantage.

Go Further

Subscriber Exclusive Content

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet