The future terrifies me. It always has.
I was terrified the day I moved schools at eight years old. I was terrified when I played my first football game at comprehensive – and I was terrible too. I was terrified when I failed my first A Level exam, and faced the terrifying prospect of losing my dream to go to university. And the day I found out I’d made it – the day Sheffield said yes – guess what?
I was terrified then, too.
Terror tends to come with uncertainty. I was just as terrified on the day Julia and Renata asked me to join their team at Future Works as a Research Assistant, all the way back in February.
But uncertainty also brings around excitement – that wonderful feeling in your gut when you want to leap out space and time and fast forward to that moment in the future, where anything could be possible.
The future of energy – our story – is just as uncertain. And yet, all across the Derwent Valley, it is excitement, not terror, that fills the industrial factories and museums. It’s our opportunity to not leave a mess for the next generation to clean-up – as so many past generations have been perceived – but rather, something to be proud of.
And yet, if there’s one thing I’ve learned from listening to our industrial partners – from Smedley’s Knitwear to the Derby Silk Mill; the 12th-century Kelham Island to the 21st-century Advanced Manufacturing Park – it’s that energy change is as relevant to the here and now as it is for the future.
In the words of Daniel Martin, Curator of Making at the Silk Mill, “man’s biggest problem is we’re always reactive”. During my wonderful time on the Stories of Change project, I’ve heard tales of catastrophic floods, ridiculous political blunders, and devastated businesses that have had no other choice but to shut up shop. All three elements are terrible, but as the old saying goes, “the world will keep on turning”.
And that’s the problem. It is energy, and energy alone, that makes the world turn. In fact, it’s energy that put us all here in the first place. Every single one of us has energy to thank for our entire existence, and yet, the vast majority of us feel indifferent towards it.
Going back to those terrifying days at school, I remember, at seven years old, being told by my teacher that one day, the world’s natural energy resources would run out completely. “The lights will go out”, he said, drawing a lamp on the whiteboard before rubbing out the bulb. I was – as you’ve guessed – bloody terrified. But it was fine, he added, because that day was “several decades away”, and we’d all be dead by then anyway.
At least he was honest.
The indifference of the individual appears to form the biggest hurdle for energetic change. “What can I do about it?” and “Yes, but how does it affect me?” have become clichéd responses, which is unsurprising given the lack of public faith in energy politics as detailed by Charlie Spencer (Spencer Group), Alex Pettifer and John Hamshire (Sheffield Industrial Museums Trust), and Hannah Fox (Derby Museums Trust) – to name but a few.
And at the same time, there was an element of excitement to each and every interview. I remember hearing Alex and John speak emphatically about Gripple, a wire tensioner and joiner manufacturer in Sheffield, and how the employee-owned company had managed to tie workers’ personal dividends to a mutual interest in driving down energy consumption. Simply put: the less energy they collectively use, the better their payslips.
Hugh Facey and Gordon Macrae (Gripple) further revealed that Gripple is currently developing a new form of wind turbine in their Whoosh project, which is set to help even more companies to reduce their energy consumption levels. This kind of inclusivity – both amongst the workforce and across industry itself – is, in my eyes, exemplary. Collective ownership and responsibility tears down the barrier of individual indifference, stimulating more public and political conversations about energy and, most importantly, making the story of change a story for all.
And it’s this note that brings me finally to end of our conversation with Smedleys’ Jane Middleton-Smith and John Mumby – my terrifying first interview. John said that energy was “ignorant” to him – something that he’d “never been involved in”. It was at this point that Jane added a perspective that has stuck with me ever since:
“I think that’s what’s quite exciting, though – to have an opportunity through a project like this for everybody to contribute ideas. It’s not just something that comes from senior management, that a project like this enables people on the shop floor…and they’re the people who use the machinery and who work here every day – it gives them an opportunity to contribute.”
I realised, at that point, how inclusive this Stories of Change project actually was: a co-productive combination of architects, geographers, historians, literary researchers, artists, archivists, museum workers, and industrial companies – from CEO to shop floor – all threaded together by this one big energetic story.
And, of course, the humble English undergrad, now graduate, who sits here excited, not terrified, at the prospect of working with energy long into the future.