Every aspect of present-day society depends on the continuing availability of clean, affordable, flexible, secure, and safe energy resources. Yet nearly 90% of our current energy needs are met by fossil fuels. Our reliance on fossil fuels has led to declining supplies, rising prices, global climate change, and security concerns. The current global energy economy is not sustainable.
The quest for solutions to our energy problems is dominated by technology "fixes." The visions of technological fixes, whether electricity generation, oil exploration and extraction, pollution mitigation, automobile fuel efficiency and alternatives to combustion engines, etc., necessarily build on what we know today and presume that we can achieve in a couple of decades or so an energy supply-demand balance that is cheap, environmentally benign, politically secure, unconstrained, convenient, and safe. While we expect technology to come to our energy-rescue, we tend to expect very little from the human and social behavioral side of energy use and demand. In some ways, the energy problem is yet another version of C.P. Snow's Two Cultures--parallel technology and social cultures with little mutual understanding and rare cross-over exchange.
Society and energy technologies have coevolved through the actions of individuals (inventors, scientists, entrepreneurs, financiers, writers, politicians, kings and queens, dictators, and statesmen), learning, adapting, selecting, exchanging information, and interacting through transactions of many kinds. At every stage, the social, economic , and technological systems were tightly coupled. It is not possible to understand our energy problems without framing them in a systems context.
The Theme Semester seeks to leverage Michigan's world-class social sciences, natural- sciences, and engineering communities and explore the interconnections and systems necessary for the creation of pathways to enduring solutions to our energy problems. The Theme Semester offers a core program of lectures, classes, and seminars together with campus community outreach activities that will engage both public and scholarly audiences. A special undergraduate event designed to encourage creative thinking about our energy problems will be a writing competition, open to all undergraduates, on the topic "What happens when the lights go out?"
In addition to engagement of the on-campus community, the Semester will bring to the campus leading scholars, authors, industry leaders, government officials, and artists who will enrich our understanding of the social contexts of our energy problems. The goal is to build better understanding of the complexities of energy and how all aspects of society interact to define the problems and set the conditions, choices, and alternatives out of which solutions will emerge.