Skip to content Skip to navigation

Research & Ideas

Search this site

Looking to the past for clues on the future of energy

​An engineer and an historian discuss how technology and human behavior are shaping the sustainable energy revolution.

wind turbines illustration

What can we expect the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy to look like? | Illustration by Stefani Billings

In the first in a series of events exploring the intersection of engineering and humanities perspectives on common themes, Stanford faculty members John O. Dabiri, professor of civil and environmental engineering and of mechanical engineering, and Ian Morris, professor of classics, engaged in a moderated discussion about the future of sustainable energy. The two spoke at length about their different viewpoints on a central question: What can we expect the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy to look like in light of new technologies and age-old human behavior?

Morris, whose most recent book explored the role of energy in shaping inequality and violence over the past 20,000 years, said that the three critical periods of energy transition – from foraging to farming to fossil fuel societies – have resembled the messy process of natural selection. “Changing our behavior is a process driven by the same forces that drive biological evolution,” he said. “We respond positively to things that allow us to do what we want to do in an easier way without taking too many risks. So if you have electric cars that cost less and run on less than internal combustion engines, then people will buy them. If you don’t, they won’t.”

Dabiri, whose research focuses on new ways to capture wind energy, said that engineers should think a little more about the context of their work – how renewable energy solutions will look different in Palo Alto than they will in Mumbai – as well as how a deeper understanding of human nature could help motivate people to change their behavior. “We often as engineers come in to the problem thinking if we come up with a cool enough gadget, people will flock to it. That might be true of the iPhone,” he said. “Until we come up with the iPhone equivalent for climate change, for solar energy, for wind energy, it’s going to be an uphill battle for massive adoption of these technologies.”

Get Updates from Stanford Engineering