I think, though, that what drives people to insist that there’s got to be limitless energy resources because we want them so badly is a belief system so deeply ingrained in today’s society, and so completely taken on faith, that we might as well call it a religion.
That belief system is faith in progress. Most people in the industrial world believe in progress the way that peasants in the Middle Ages believed in the wonder-working bones of the local saint. It’s an unquestioned truism in contemporary culture that newer technologies are by definition better than older ones, that old beliefs are disproved by the mere passage of time, and that the future ahead of us will inevitably be like the present, but even more so. For all practical purposes, belief in progress is the established religion of the modern world, with its own mythology — think of all the stories you got in school about brilliant thinkers single-handedly overturning the superstitious nonsense of the past — and its own lab-coated priesthood.
Most people these days literally can’t think outside the box of progress. That’s why the only alternative to the endless continuation of business as usual that has any kind of public presence these days is apocalypse — some sudden catastrophe gaudy enough to overwhelm the otherwise unstoppable force of progress. The faith in apocalypse is simply the flipside of the faith in progress — instead of a bigger, better, brighter future, we get a bigger, better, brighter cataclysm. Suggest that the future ahead of us might not be either of those hackneyed stereotypes, and you can count on hearing the echoing bang of minds slamming shut.
We in the lucky countries of the West now regard our two-century bubble of freedom and affluence as normal and inevitable; it has even been called the “end” of history, in both a temporal and technological sense. Yet this new order is an anomaly: the opposite of what usually happens as civilizations grow. Our age was bankrolled by the seizing of half a planet, extended by taking over most of the remaining half, and has been sustained by spending down new forms of natural capital, especially fossil fuels. In the New World, the West hit the biggest bonanza of all time. And there won’t be another like it — not unless we find the civilized Martians of H.G. Wells, complete with vulnerability to our germs that undid them in his War of the Worlds.