A butterfly’s wings might start a tornado, but that doesn’t mean the energy world works that way
The butterfly effect, a function of chaos theory, speculates that the flapping of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil can eventually cause a tornado in Texas. Some theorists demonstrated how this would be, that the wind vortices generated were necessary to get the (much bigger) snowball rolling.
This isn’t a particularly useful theory because it’s not accurate – quite a few butterflies flap their wings every day without serious intercontinental incident. It’s a well known theoretical model though that is embedded in folk lore, if nothing else. But it’s practicality is obviously quite limited.
Why then do we utilize similar concepts when mapping out how energy use is changing for the greener?
The issue is actually quite universal, that we frame arguments from our own viewpoint. City dwellers see the world differently than rural, and industrialized countries see it differently than developing. However, we do lose sight of the scale of the world sometimes beyond our own circumstances, and we need to be cognizant of that when charting the world’s energy path in particular.
In Europe, many green technologies are quite advanced. Solar panels are everywhere, governments have built massive vehicle charging networks, and have also announced plans to ban sale of gasoline vehicles in the coming decades (though actually doing that might be a challenge). In North America, solar and wind power are making huge strides and providing meaningful contributions to power supplies.
But Europe and North America contain only a fraction of the world’s population. These two regions are home to about a billion people, out of a total of seven. They do contain a major portion of the world’s wealth though and the two should not be confused.
Wealth allows the choice and luxury of green energy. It allows governments to pay for subsidies to hasten acceptance, and it allows people to buy expensive Teslas which in turn helps the company develop its new technologies and .
But consider population heavyweights like Africa, Asia, and South America. These three geographical beasts contain over 6 billion people, many of whom are in what we call developing economies. Why do we assume that their path to green energy will be anything like ours?
Europe and North America are home to fully developed electrical grids, highway systems, infrastructure, and overall stable energy distribution systems. There are plenty of challenges in adapting those to an electrical based system, but the bones are already there.
Compare that with the economies of Africa, India, or even much of China. The infrastructure will have to be constructed, including building highways and other transportation alternatives simply to construct the energy infrastructure of a green economy.
We tend to assume that because we in North America and Europe are going green a t a certain pace that the rest of the world will follow right along, that they will stop buying fossil fuel vehicles and the world will no longer need petroleum. But their path and trajectory is completely different. In India for example, Tata Motors is, among others, bringing small affordable gasoline powered cars to the home market that are enabling families to move beyond motorcycle transportation for the first time. And India has a billion people. That’s the excitement in those parts of the world, not switching to Teslas.
In some ways, what we see in our own backyards is the energy equivalent of the butterfly wings. People lining up in California to buy Tesla Model 3s does not necessarily translate into collapsing demand for gasoline in India.
The world is getting greener where we can afford it, but we’re not all on the same points on the curve.