2007 Investiture Address by Dr. John P. Holdren

Teresa and John Heinz Professor of Environmental Policy, Harvard University & Director, Woods Hole Research Center

(See full bio)

June 9, 2007

Engineering, Energy, and the Human Condition

Thank you, Dean Helble, for that generous introduction and citation. I am honored indeed to receive the Thayer School's Fletcher award and to have the opportunity to say a few words this morning to the new graduates, their families and friends, your splendid Thayer School faculty, and other friends of the School who are here for this investiture.

John P. Holdren To the graduates, in particular, let me say that in choosing engineering you have embraced the proposition that while knowledge for its own sake is good, knowledge acquired for the purpose of improving the human condition is even better. In choosing engineering you have also chosen one of the most demanding avenues for the application of knowledge to improving the human condition—requiring that you integrate understandings of mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, economics, and all the dimensions of human needs. At the same time, by virtue of this very versatility, interdisciplinarity, and relevance, the engineering avenue you have chosen is one of the most powerful ones available for improving the human condition.

And certainly there is much about the human condition that needs improving. Our world of 2007 remains afflicted still by:

While it may seem that some of these afflictions are much more susceptible than others to remedy through the work of engineers, the fact is that the afflictions are all interconnected. Both the oppression of human rights and wars of conquest are as often motivated by issues of control and distribution of economic and environmental resources as by other causes. Abuse of human rights and abuse of the environment share some of the same root causes in selfishness, shortsightedness, and misplaced sense of superiority and privilege. Eradicating poverty and the oppression of human rights would remove two of the most powerful sources of frustration, desperation, and rage—hence of crime, terrorism, and civil war—from which our society suffers. Technologies of distributed, healthy, and environmentally sustainable abundance could make an immense contribution to alleviation of the whole problematique.

Absolutely central to getting this right is the part of it that relates to energy, or more specifically what I call the energy-economy-environment-security challenge.

Economically, affordable energy is a crucial ingredient of strategies for meeting basic human needs, for sustainable development, and for sustained prosperity everywhere. Energy costs typically account for 7-10% of the cost of living. If they rise too much, the results are inflation, recession, and frustration of economic aspirations of the poor.

Environmentally, energy supply is a major contributor to many of the most dangerous and difficult environmental problems—locally, regionally, and globally. Energy supply is the source of:

As for security (meaning freedom from violence), energy's links to that issue include:

This last security connection may be the most fundamental and important one, insofar as frustration and despair driven by impoverishment or the threat of it are likely to be the most enduring sources of violence in society.

Understanding the energy challenge more fully requires taking a look at the quantitative dimensions of where we have been, where we are, and where we are headed.

I start with where we have been. In the 150 years from 1850 to 2000, the rate of use of inanimate energy by civilization grew more than 20-fold. At the beginning of the period, in 1850, 88 percent of world energy supply was coming from the "traditional" sources, consisting of wood, crop wastes, and dung. Twelve percent was coming from coal.

In the 100 years from 1850 to 1950, the growth of world energy use at an average rate of 1.5 percent per year was driven mainly by expanded use of coal, with an increasing contribution toward the end of the period from oil. From 1950 to 2000, world energy use grew at twice the rate of the preceding hundred years—that is, it grew at about 3 percent per year—and this growth was driven mainly by expanded use of oil, with an increasing contribution, toward the end of the period, from natural gas.

In the year 2000, 80 percent of the world's energy supply was coming from the fossil fuels—oil, coal, and natural gas—and only 20 percent from the combination of biomass energy, hydropower, nuclear energy, and a bit of wind, solar, and geothermal energy. (An even higher fossil-fuel dependence is indicated in compilations that omit the traditional, mainly nonmarketed biomass energy forms—wood, crop wastes, and dung—that still serve as the main energy sources for the 2 billion poorest people on the planet.) In the United States, the dependence of the energy system on fossil fuels was over 85 percent in the year 2000. And these huge percentage dependencies on fossil fuels—over 80 percent for the world and over 85 percent for the United States—persist today, in 2007.

If the world continues on what is often called the "business as usual" trajectory, global energy use in 2030 will reach 1.5 times the 2000 level, in 2050 it will be 2.5 times the 2000 level, and in 2100 it will have quadrupled from the 2000 figure. Electricity use on this trajectory will be 3 times the 2000 level by 2050 and 5 times larger than the 2000 figure by 2100.

Should we be worried about that? The first concern of most people, upon learning of such projections, is that energy resources will not suffice to meet these huge increases in demand. But that concern is misplaced. The world is not running out of energy in any fundamental sense. It is probably running out of inexpensive oil and gas, but there is perhaps 10 times as much coal as conventional oil and gas combined, and perhaps five times as much oil shale as coal. The quantities of nuclear fuel are even larger, and the flow of renewable energy reaching the Earth from the Sun is enough that harnessing even a small fraction of it would suffice to meet energy needs far larger than today's for billions of years.

Even if we are not running out of energy per se, however, running out of cheap energy is already stressful for society. And we are also running out of some other energy-related "resources" that matter a great deal:

This last dimension of the problem is the one most under-rated by policy makers and the public, who generally fail to grasp both the huge momentum associated with the scale and long turnover time of the world's existing energy system and the rate at which the problems with it are growing.

Among all of the challenges connected with the world's energy predicament, three loom as the most important and daunting:

  1. meeting the basic energy needs of the world's 2 billion poorest people in ways that avoid the huge current health damages from burning biomass fuels in inefficient, dirty open fires and stoves in badly ventilated dwellings;
  2. reducing the dangers of urban air pollution and overdependence on oil in the face of ongoing and projected growth in the number of cars in the world; and
  3. providing the affordable energy needed to create and sustain prosperity everywhere without wrecking the global climate with carbon dioxide emitted by fossil-fuel burning.

The first of these problems is the easiest of the three technically, but the political will to get the available solutions implemented has been lacking (as is so often the case in society when the problem in question is one that burdens only the poor).

In general, the energy problems that we face will require improvements both in technology and in policy. For example, only with improved technologies will we be able to:

And only with better policies will we be able to:

Engineers have an important role to play not only in the design and development and deployment of the improved technologies that are needed, but also in the public and political debates that must occur if the needed policies are to materialize. As I tell my own students, the "numbers" are not everything in public policy—unquantifiable matters of preferences and priorities and politics always enter, too—but forming public policy without an appreciation for the technical facts on the ground is a prescription for failure. Engineers with the sorts of training you have received at the Thayer School—practical people who understand how technology works and how it is linked to the condition of the economy, the environment, and national and international security—need to be in the thick of the policy debate if we are to get sensible answers. Do not let anybody tell you otherwise.

There is much that needs to be done, not only in the energy-environment-security domain but also in the other great issues where creative and enlightened engineering will be key to improving the human condition. I congratulate the Thayer School Class of 2007—BEs, MSs, and PhDs alike—on your achievements in preparing for these challenges and on the contributions that many of you have already made to addressing them. I know I will be reading of your further successes not only in journals such as Environmental Science and Technology and Chemical and Engineering News; but also in Science, Nature, Energy Policy, and Foreign Affairs; and I hope in the headlines, the evening news, and the blogosphere as well.

Thank you ... and good luck!