Cinema Literature and Energy

The Energy Crisis Seen Through Young-Adult Fiction

Cover of The Carbon Diaries, a novel by Saci Lloyd
© Planète Energies

Comment realized by Alain Beltran, Senior Research Fellow, French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS).

For a number of years, the world has been (more or less acutely) aware that we are experiencing not only an energy transition but also a critical period when the issue of non-renewable energyNon-renewable energy or fossil fuels are forms of primary energy that cannot be replenished after use on a human time scale... resources is emerging as a huge challenge. This decisive moment and the accompanying sea change have given rise to a variety of literary efforts, especially for children and teenagers, in Japan, the United Kingdom and France. An analysis of three recent works from each of these countries helps grasp the messages that authors are seeking to convey, how awareness that the future will be different is being raised, and what solutions are available for the planet.

The most obvious difference among the three works is their form: a French comic strip (La Main Verte, or The Green Thumb), a British novel (The Carbon Diaries 2015) and a three-volume Japanese manga (The Hunt for Energy). They all came out very recently (The Carbon Diaries 2015 has a sequel, entitled The Carbon Diaries 2017). And while they all contain many twists and turns, and their tone is quite different, the three works of young-adult fiction share some major themes.

Living in a World Without Energy

On the surface, life is peaceful and laidback in Bordeaux. But a speech by the President of the French Republic highlights the scarcity of raw materials, and oil in particular, making it necessary to prepare for a new way of life. Few people respond to the warning. And yet, in just a few weeks, cars can no longer run for lack of fuelFuel is any solid, liquid or gaseous substance or material that can be combined with an oxidant..., and a financial and industrial crisis adds to the energy crisis. People fight for tomatoes costing €50 a kilo, even though they are barely edible. Some jobs become obsolete (including that of comic book artist, which is the case of the hero of La Main Verte), while repairers and other technicians are in high demand. On the other side of the Channel, the British government has already taken the lead in response to the energy crisis, enacting a number of laws and regulations resulting in a drastic reduction in carbon consumption (initially about 60%). Cars become a thing of the past, rationing is introduced for electricityForm of energy resulting from the movement of charged particles (electrons) through a conductor... consumption (with a total of 200 Carbon Points), and showers are subject to time limits. The novel asks whether, given these circumstances, people should continue to import mangoes from South Africa or just eat apples from Kent, taking into account the difference in carbon footprintThe carbon footprint (also known as greenhouse gas inventory) of a good or service measures the impact human activities have on the environment ... between the two sources. In her journal (The Carbon Diaries 2015), Laura Brown, the heroine, is plagued by all the usual torments of adolescence, but also recounts clashes between family members, with those who understand the change going up against those who are not prepared to adapt. She writes with a certain humor: “The 1970s age-bracket of parents was very selfish. For example, they invented mood lighting instead of mending stockings under one forty-wattThe watt (symbol W) is the derived unit of power (see definition) in the International System of Units (SI)... bulbs like our grandparents” (The Carbon Diaries 2015, page 32). People must adopt a new lifestyle, embrace greater sobriety. But despite best efforts, a black market develops. The elders remember the bleak hours of the Blitz (the bombing of London by Germany at the beginning of the Second World War). Every day, people have to choose what electrical appliances to use, because an unfeeling meter cuts powerIn physics, power is the amount of energy supplied by a system per unit time. In simpler terms, power can be viewed as energy output... to irresponsible (or disobedient) consumers. Repeat offenders have to negotiate directly with the government’s Carbon Department, and some are even sentenced to a form of reeducation. Soon water too starts becoming scarce. Then come giant blackouts hitting various European countries, and sometimes impacting the British Isles (dependent for their energy on gas or electricity from the continent). Businesses only work four days a week to save energy. Candles once again become staples, and people taking the Tube face the risk of being stranded between two stations. Inevitably, society pays a heavy toll: looting becomes rampant, demonstrations of heavy truck drivers degenerate. The army is called in.

Climate Events

Climate events – and their serious consequences – are a key theme of U.K. novel The Carbon Diaries 2015. It is actually a great storm (spelled with capitals – the Great Storm – like the Great Fire of London and the Great Plague in the 17th century) destroying thousands of homes that prompts the British government to anticipate the consequences of climate change. Continental Europe reacts more slowly, almost triggering a revolt against Brussels, before a referendum leads to the decision to take measures identical to those imposed in Britain. But, as the seasons go by, climate change strikes in all its forms: extremely harsh winters that cover Europe in snow, a very dry summer with water shortages, and a huge storm that sweeps Britain’s west coast and even gets the better of the barrier on the Thames. London and its suburbs are drowned. Rats appear and an epidemic of cholera – a disease believed to be a thing of the past – decimates the population. The Gulf StreamA powerful, swift ocean current that originates in the Gulf of Mexico..., which ensured mild weather in Western Europe, appears to have weakened to the point of disappearing. In Japan, the terrible tsunami of 2011 (which was caused by an undersea earthquake) has obviously remained in everyone’s mind, not to mention the ensuing problems at the Fukushima nuclear power plant. Remember that one of the possible consequences of climate change, in addition to rising temperatures, is the increasing frequency of extreme weather events such as storms, typhoons, droughts and floods. For this reason, the events described in these works of fiction can be seen as a possible reality.

Finding Other Ways

In the comic book La Main Verte (The Green Thumb), the hero becomes a bike-taxi to survive. He miraculously finds a jerrycan of gasoline that does not actually get him very far from Bordeaux (he gets back on his bike-taxi to continue). Along the way, he meets communities where different solutions are being tried out. One lives in autarky by cultivating the land; further down the road, vehicles are run on gasoline made from genetically modified alfalfa, causing armed conflicts with greens opposed to GMOs. The situation is not unlike the chaos predicted by René Barjavel in his novel Ashes, Ashes (1943), discussed in a previous article. In the end, the hero finds his father and asks him – with difficulty – how to grow tomatoes and other treasures of the vegetable garden. The English family in The Carbon Diaries also ends up worrying above all about food and energy. To keep eating, the family also gets into the garden, sowing, tending and watering (when there is water). It even raises a pig that becomes very fat by eating the garbage. But the beast is so lovable that it becomes the mascot of the neighborhood rather than a potential source of deli meat.The heroes of the Japanese manga work at JEC (Japan Energy Corporation). Since 2011, the company’s president has wanted to replace oil and nuclear power. But to do so, the company has to find a new source of energy. Two competing teams embark on this quest by meeting with representatives of universities and business research centers that are trying to find new paths. The manga’s first volume discusses the benefits of oil (a liquid and highly concentrated source of energy) and the search for information on solar power plants, weighing the advantages and disadvantages of this technology (intermittency, use of space). Building on their analysis of electric vehicles, the team of energy hunters finds that the issue is not just how to produce energy, but also how to consume it. The team then reflects on the huge solar power complexes planned in the Sahara (Desertec Project) and the Gobi Desert (extrapolating on the Genesis facility in Colorado). It asks whether it would not be better to build a larger number of integrated solar projects using walls, windows and columns. Or to install an international super-grid. Or a space station capable of sending luminous flows to Earth, where they can be transformed into energy. In the end, the three crusaders go to the island of Hokkaido in northern Japan, the mecca of wind energyEnergy derived from the wind. Wind power involves converting the kinetic energy of moving air (wind) into electricity.. Here the advantages, disadvantages (noise, hazard for birds, social acceptance) and different operational forms (“civic” wind turbines, micro-turbines, 120-meter turbines, floating turbines arranged in a network because the Sea of Japan is deep, etc.) are again each examined in turn. After this panorama, the team of energy hunters comes to the conclusion that the best solution is to use all renewable energies, increase energy efficiencyIn economic terms, energy efficiency refers to the efforts made to reduce the energy consumption of a system..., develop smart grids, make greater use of electric cars that can also be used for storage, etc. A final twist threatens to ruin everything... but our heroes save the day. And not wanting to be spoilers, we promise not to reveal how.

What Are the Key Messages?

Targeting young readers on a subject as critical as the future of energy – if not the future of humanity altogether – the three examples given here inevitably have a message to convey. In fact, while the events they describe are dramatic, there is strong use of humor and critical detachment in the British and French texts. The distant memories of the privations of the Second World War resurface, along with the need to return to simple things, the family, farming and mutual assistance, on both sides of the Channel. There is no feeling of despondency despite the harshness of the times. The Japanese manga is quite educational and ultimately shows that, here too, mutual assistance, the sharing of projects and cooperation are better than unbridled competition. It also emerges that energy issues should no longer be viewed locally or nationally, but that global thinking is needed more than ever. The issues of pollution, climate change and the depletionIn the oil industry, depletion corresponds to the gradual decline in production from an oil or gas well... of natural resources can only be solved on a global scale. The three volumes of the Japanese work actually show the diversity of solutions, not the solution. The future, they tell us, will involve innovation, controlled growth and long-term policies.

Find out more:

  • -The Carbon Diaries 2015, Saci Lloyd, Hodder Children’s Books, 2008.
  • -La Main verte, Hervé Bourhis, Futuropolis, 2009, 72 pages.
  • -The Hunt for Energy, Boichi, Editions Tonkam, Young Manga (in three volumes: HE1, HE2 and HE3), 2011, French edition 2014, translated by Satoko Fujimoto.
  • -Les Cerisiers fleurissent malgré tout, Manga, Keiko Kana Ichiguchi, 2013 (the story takes place after the 2011 disaster).
  • -Plein d’énergies, Pierre Papon and Benjamin Strickler, Le Pommier, 2012 (fairly educational).



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