Energy conservation as a long-term goal is both immoral and dangerous

Our responsibility is not merely to look after the Earth, but also to be custodians of our civilisat

On the Friends of the Earth website is a manifesto for the future of the planet, guided by three big ideas; that we should live within the limits of the natural world, that everyone is entitled to a good life, and that we should arrange our economy so we do not pit people against the environment.

I believe that these self-evidently noble goals can only be achieved in the long term by an increase in energy use. This conclusion runs counter to the views of many environmentalists, who see energy conservation as the only way to save our planet and, it seems to me, as a moral goal in itself. I believe that these diametrically opposed opinions stem from different views of the importance of humanity's place in nature.

I live in the foothills of the Pennines because I prefer looking at open hillsides at steel and concrete. I understand those who feel that we humans are separate from nature, building our civilisation on top of it and in the process precipitating a relentless struggle with the environment. Surely we are nothing more than custodians of Planet Earth, transitory tenants whose primary responsibility should be to leave things as we find them?

As a physicist I find myself driven to a different view. The visible universe is unimaginably vast. Our own galaxy, the Milky Way, contains over two hundred billion suns, many with planets orbiting them. The Milky Way is one of over a hundred billion galaxies that we see in the sky, extending to a distant horizon over thirteen billion light years away.

In this giant and majestic arena we have no evidence at all for any life, let alone intelligent life, anywhere outside our planet. It could be that there is none, at least within the reach of the super-sensitive radio telescopes that have been scanning the sky for evidence of transmissions from alien civilisations for over half a century. It could therefore be claimed that of all the complex and beautiful natural structures we see across the universe, the human brain is by far the most precious. It is a part of nature, in the same way that the stars and planets are parts of nature, but as far as we know it is the only structure that can bring meaning to the universe. We are not separate from nature; we are the most remarkable known piece of it. Seen in these terms, our responsibility is not merely to be custodians of the Earth, but perhaps more importantly to be custodians of our civilisation: it may be the only one.

Let me take each of Friends of the Earth's big ideas in turn, and explore how this perspective leads me to believe that in order to achieve them we must find a way to use more, not less, energy.

First, that we should live within the limits of the natural world. These limits are not those imposed by the narrow confines of our planet. The universe is teeming with resources and dangers, and we must learn how to exploit the former and avoid the latter. Today, all of our eggs are in one cosmic basket; it would only take one rogue comet or asteroid to end our stewardship of Earth for good. To survive, we must reach beyond our planet. This necessary exploitation and exploration of space will inevitably require extra energy consumption.

Second, that everyone is entitled to a good life. I take this to mean that everyone should be entitled to the kind of life I lead, but even if I become as green as I can be, I will still be incredibly profligate in comparison with the overwhelming majority of people on the planet. I want to see cities like London and Tokyo rise from the deserts of Africa, and Europeans spend their holidays on shopping trips to an Ethiopian 5th Avenue. Of course there are seemingly insurmountable political and social problems that will prevent this from happening for many years, but why shouldn't it be our goal in principle? It should, and the only fundamental barrier is access to energy. One might even reasonably argue that the developed world's jealous protection of limited energy resources plays a significant role in stifling the seeds of growth in the poorest regions before they have taken root.

Third, that we should not pit people against the environment. The future expansion of the human race is, of course, contingent on us not destroying the Earth, and, without doubt, using fossil fuels to generate energy is inflicting potentially devastating damage on our climate. The tragedy of this situation is that we already know in principle how to generate vast amounts of energy without jeopardising our future by harnessing the power that causes the sun to shine: nuclear fusion. Fusion works by sticking together lighter atomic nuclei to make heavier ones. In the case of the sun, hydrogen is converted into helium, and in the process a very large amount of energy is released. Fusing one kilogram of hydrogen into helium releases enough energy to power six hundred Americans for one year. The joint European Torus experimental reactor in the UK has achieved a similar nuclear reaction using the two hydrogen isotopes deuterium and tritium. Deuterium is available in enormous quantities in water and is easily extracted. Lake Geneva alone contains enough deuterium to satisfy the world's energy needs for several thousands of years. Tritium is made inside the fusion reactor from lithium, an element found in large accessible quantities in the Earth's crust. Fusion is a waste-free and inherently safe energy generation technology that can provide the power to expand our civilisation at whatever rate we choose into the distant future.

Progress towards a viable fusion power station has been slow, however. The latest international project is the $12 billion International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, which will be sited in southern France and funded by the EU, the US, China, South Korea, Japan and Russia. ITER, it is hoped, will succeed in generating useable electricity from nuclear fusion within 30 years. With more investment, it could be sooner. The UK government could fund the entire project alone, by the way, if it dropped its ID card scheme.

Energy conservation sounds morally right. But in fact it is only necessary if we generate energy in an environmentally destructive way by burning fossil fuels. It is equally problematic in the long term to demand that global energy consumption remains constant, or even falls, by restricting generation to renewable sources and ruling out nuclear power of all kinds, as many environmental organisations suggest.

This is immoral because it surely condemns vast numbers of the world's citizens to a harder life than my own today, and dangerous because it will prevent us from expanding intellectually, technologically and physically, as we must if we are to survive in the violent universe that exists just a few hundred miles above our heads. What is required is a significant increase in research spending worldwide, with the aim of increasing the number of young people moving into science and learning how to release the vast potential of fusion power.

The goal of energy policy today should be to bridge the gap until this happens, without irreparably damaging the environment. But we must ensure that the bridging strategy lasts for as short a period as possible, for it is only through an expansion in energy use that we will give that most precious piece of nature, ourselves, the best chance of survival.

Dr Brian Cox is a member of the High Energy Physics Group at the University of Manchester, and was the scientific consultant on the recent film, "Sunshine". Prior to 1997 he was the keyboard player in the group D:REAM

Brian Cox is a broadcaster and professor of physics at the University of Manchester. With Robin Ince, he guest-edited the Christmas 2012 issue of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 02 July 2007 issue of the New Statesman, The Brown revolution begins