RMI Alumnus Using History to Change Our Energy Future
This is the second in a series about RMI alumni. The first blog is available here.
Always an environmentalist, Jonah Bea-Taylor’s original career plan was to become a scientist who studied and saved endangered species. But after spending some time in the muck and mire of the Florida Everglades, he began to think differently about how to make a difference.
Jonah saw that climate change was a factor of growing importance for the scientists studying endangered species. Like so many RMI employees, he felt that energy was a critical place to intervene to mitigate climate change and help the environment.
“It seemed climate change was such an overarching problem, one that was undoing the hard work of people involved in ecosystem restoration and recycling and other sustainability endeavors. In order to make any real difference, addressing how we use and generate energy was key,” said Jonah. “This became a personal mission for me and I felt that working on energy was directly related to human survival.”
Jonah joined RMI’s communications team in 2007 as a media specialist. One of his favorite experiences at RMI was helping to craft the video for RMI’s 25th anniversary, “RMI25: A Retrofuturespective”, which made a strong statement about where RMI had come from and where it was going. The video illustrates how RMI’s approach has always been distinct from other environmental organizations and advocacy groups.
Jonah left RMI in 2009 and continues to work on issues that he explored at RMI. He is currently pursuing a PhD in the history and sociology of technology and science at Georgia Tech. In addition, Jonah has an interdisciplinary fellowship in a program conducting research in nanostructured materials for energy conversion and storage. The program, funded by the National Science Foundation provides cross-disciplinary training for students in energy science, technology, and policy.
According to Jonah, creating opportunities for researchers to succeed will help lead to breakthroughs in nanotechnology.
“We are trying to get students from engineering, public policy, and other social science disciplines together in the same place to help speed the commercialization of these incredible new technologies that are still in the development phase,” he said. “Once they are out of the laboratory, they could rapidly change the picture for renewable energy. Nanostructured materials hold possibilities for batteries with vastly greater capacities, or solar photovoltaics with far greater efficiency, for example.”
This silo-busting tactic is similar to RMI’s whole systems approach, and Jonah’s perspective as a historian of science is valuable to the program.
“As a historian, I bring the perspective that technological revolutions are possible,” he said. “Amory Lovins is fond of telling the story about the transition from the use of whale oil to kerosene as an example of a dramatic change, but also warns that there are possible unintended consequences tied to our energy choices—as the history of nuclear energy (and now biotech) continue to demonstrate.”
He continued, “By gathering students from very different areas we hope to bring perspectives that will help nanotechnology develop in a way that actually solves sustainability problems instead of creating new ones.”
Jonah’s experiences and education since leaving RMI have only solidified his convictions about the importance of solving energy problems.
“Tackling our energy challenges is still the road to solving climate change; there is no greater problem humanity faces today,” he said. “And it continues to subsume all other environmental problems—from clean water to biodiversity.”