COVID-19, Gandhi, & the Next Energy Breakthrough

close-up of purple and pink plasma ball

By Scott V. Nguyen, PhD

I’m an avid listener of the podcast Radiolab, where the host Jab Abumrad with his producers do an amazing job bringing to life topics in science, history, and current events in a storytelling perspective that is fascinating. What I love the most though are the thought provoking moments, sometimes during the show and sometimes well after the show, where the story sparks that flash of insight, an “aha” moment.

This happened recently when I was listening to the episode: Dispatches from 1918. In this episode, Radiolab looked back at the 1918 Flu Pandemic that killed between 50 to 100 million people worldwide. The episode explored how this invisible force not only impacted political, artistic, and social events at that time but also how it led to outcomes that changed the course of human history.

I learned how Woodrow Wilson may have caught the flu during the negotiations of the Treaty of Versailles, and in his weakened state, conceded to strict terms imposed on the Germans that many argue led to the rise of Hitler. However, it was the story of Mahatma Gandhi and the impact of his bout with the flu that gave me the “aha” moment.

Is it a stretch to predict that the current COVID-19 pandemic can lead us to the next great energy breakthrough?

Gandhi and the Flu of 1918

In 1915, Gandhi had returned to India from years abroad in the UK and South Africa. He was already a leading activist, organizing protests by the Indian working class and promoting Indian independence. Although less well known and contrary to his present day non-violent image was Gandhi’s recruitment of Indians to fight for the British during World War I. At the time, he believed that if Indian’s fought in the war, the show of courage and strength would help their movement for independence.

In a leaflet entitled "Appeal for Enlistment", Gandhi wrote "To bring about such a state of things we should have the ability to defend ourselves, that is, the ability to bear arms and to use them... If we want to learn the use of arms with the greatest possible despatch, it is our duty to enlist ourselves in the army."More than 1 million Indians fought for the British during WWI.

In 1918, as the war was winding down, Indian soldiers were returning home after fighting across Europe and Mesopotamia. Returning with them to India, was the flu. Experts believe it started with soldiers arriving in Bombay, then spread across the entire country of India. Across two waves, the flu killed between 10 and 20 million Indians or 5% of the population at the time, compared to only half a million in the US.

Among the sick was Gandhi. Although historians are uncertain that Gandhi had the influenza virus, he was ill during the 2nd wave of the pandemic. He was so sick that he started reflecting on his life and had a spiritual awakening: "The more I contemplate this illness, the more deeply I realize what love of man to man must be, and therefore love of God to man."

He questioned his previous beliefs, including the Indian recruitment efforts he led during WWI: "One need not assume that heroism is to be acquired only by fighting in a war. One can do so even while keeping out of it. War is one powerful means among many others, but if it is a powerful means it is also an evil one."

A new, revitalized Gandhi emerged from the flu, with the non-violent civil obedience message that he is well known for today. In addition, a new, Indian people emerged, having just been ravaged by the flu and seeing that the British colonial government did little to provide assistance, embraced Gandhi’s message.

Next Energy Breakthrough

Fast forward to today. It’s not a question of if the current COVID-19 pandemic will change human history similar to the 1918 Flu Pandemic, but a question of how. The impacts may be indirect and similar to the effect of the flu on Gandhi or on Woodrow Wilson, it could be several degrees removed. From this altered path, there could be a silver lining.

For example, I see the potential for the current pandemic enabling the next energy breakthrough. As the country continues to grapple with the coronavirus, a Pew Research study found that 62% of voters say the outbreak will be a very important factor in their decision about who to support in the 2020 U.S. General Election. This is borne out in the current presidential election polls where former Vice President Joe Biden’s lead over President Trump has grown from 3.8% at the end of February to now 9.2% according to FiveThirtyEight.

If Biden wins, he will seek to enact a $2 trillion green energy and infrastructure plan. Biden’s plan includes achieving net zero carbon emissions in the electricity sector by 2035, upgrading 4 million buildings to be more energy efficient, and installing 500,000 electric vehicle charging stations nationwide.

Energy plans like this have been proposed and have died many times over in the past. However, we are in a radically different situation than those times before. We have the pandemic, we have over 30 million people out of work or underemployed, and we have 60% of Americans who say climate change is a major threat. Like in the story of Gandhi and the 1918 Flu Pandemic, when we are predisposed by conditions that are radically outside of the norm, the possibility for equally radical change is at its height.

The part of the Biden plan that truly caught my attention though was the $400 billion of investment over 10 years in clean energy research and innovation. The scale of this program harkens back to the days of the Apollo program which totaled $25 billion or about $175 billion in today’s dollars, eventually landing a man on the moon within 10 years of its beginning.

The funding into energy research will lead to technical and marketplace innovations that will accelerate our energy transformation. Most importantly though, with that amount of money going into research, clean energy will be at the forefront of U.S. public attention, similar to the Apollo program in the 1960s. It will draw in the smartest and brightest minds from all over the world. It will capture the imagination of younger generations, the ones who have the most at stake in a cleaner, brighter energy future, stimulating interest in clean energy studies or careers for decades to come. Among this cohort, someone as transformative as Gandhi or as brilliant as Einstein will emerge, and lead us to the next energy breakthrough.

We are living through an incredible moment in history, and it is critical to reflect on the ways both large and small that contemporary events may shape our future. COVID-19 touches every facet of our lives and forces us to rethink our perspectives and form new outlooks about the problems we face and how it shapes society. Evidently, energy is a priority issue in the public consciousness. As we proceed through the pandemic and approach a potential political transition, we may be on the cusp of a transformative moment for the energy sector.

It is reasonable to assume that this may be a leading story for a future episode of Radiolab, possibly entitled: Dispatches from 2020 that Revolutionized the Energy Industry.

Scott Nguyen is an Energy Transition Fellow at the Energy Institute and CEO of 17TeraWatts

Oct. 29, 2020