Saving the World?

IntroPost_ElizabethWritten by Beth Parrot

“So what do you do?”

“I’m doing a PhD In physics, researching solar cells.”

“Oh, so you’re saving the world then?”


That’s one of those questions I often get asked (along with “Oh, so you must be really clever then?”) that often leaves me struggling to find a good answer. “Not really” seems a bit pessimistic and might leave them wondering why I get some of their tax money, and “Yes, don’t worry about global warming, I’ll have a solution by the end of my PhD” seems a little too good to be true.

It often doesn’t feel much like saving the world when I’m sat at my desk wondering why my fitting algorithm is giving so many errors or I’m trying to reach to the back of the glovebox for the tiny screw I just flicked behind the pipette box with my oversized glove-hands. Certainly not a scene from a superhero movie at any rate. And even when everything’s going well can I really claim to be saving the world? It’s possible that the particular material I’m working on will be used commercially for solar cells, and that the tiny bit of knowledge I’ve added might be crucial to getting there, but then again, it might never be used. It feels a bit like adding a grain of sand to a pyramid.

There’s an assumption behind the question that the way to solve the world’s problems is through science and technology, and this seems to particularly be the case for the issue of climate change and sustainability. Some of my friends have stated it outright – that there’s no point trying to be ‘green’ because either scientists will find a way to sort it out, or we’ll end up in some kind of disaster movie scenario (which seems pretty far removed from deciding to put that can in the recycling bin). So that’s where I come in, the super scientist who saves the world with solar so people can sleep safely in their beds at night knowing I’m busy in the lab fighting the villain CO2. But even if I do create an amazing cheap solar cell by the end of my PhD I would still need people to put it on their roof or to invest in a solar farm.

CDT_LogoThere’s also the issue of sustainability. My CDT is called ‘New and Sustainable Photovoltaics’ – meaning we’re trying to use materials that are abundant so they won’t run out, and that will generate far more energy in their lifetime than was used in their manufacture, transport, installation and decommissioning (otherwise they would be net users of energy which certainly wouldn’t be sustainable). In theory that means we could have an unlimited supply of energy to meet our ever increasing needs. Even in developed countries, energy and resource usage is continually going up (once the energy and resources used in making the products we import is taken into account) because of its intrinsic link to economic growth which we’re always striving to push up1-2. If we truly have an unlimited supply of energy that’s solved part of the problem, but it doesn’t get round the fact that we’re going to need ever increasing amounts of land and materials, both for making products and producing energy3. Needless to say, exponential growth can’t carry on forever on a finite planet. In addition, more mining, more deforestation and more stuff going to landfill, all contribute to global warming, so the two problems are very related.

So it looks like scientists can’t ‘save the world’ on their own. In Stephen Hawking’s words:

“…Such pressing issues will require us to collaborate, all of us, with a shared vision and cooperative endeavour… We will need to adapt, rethink, refocus and change some of our fundamental assumptions about what we mean by wealth…”4

Doing my PhD on solar cells seems to have unwittingly given me a platform to talk about climate change and sustainability with people I meet, and I often shy away from it because I would never want to motivate someone to change their lifestyle out of guilt or by scaremongering. For me as a Christian the motivation comes from a desire to care for the planet God created and love the people who live on it. So next time someone asks if I’m saving the world I think I’ll say:

“I’m trying to make a tiny contribution, but anyone can make as big a contribution just by thinking about what impact our actions have on the world.”

Like my tiny contributions in the lab, these little actions might feel as small and useless as a grain of sand on a pyramid, but they do add up. I’ll leave you with a few examples:

  • Switch your energy provider to a renewable energy company
  • Look after your electronics – and if it breaks, can you fix it rather than buying new?
  • Buy second hand
  • Eat less meat (switching from a diet that contains >100g meat to vegetarian or pescetarian offsets the green house gases to buying a return flight from London to New York)5

1Wiedmann, Thomas O., et al. “The material footprint of nations.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 112.20 (2015): 6271-6276.
2Monbiot, False Promise
3Weinzettel, Jan, et al. “Affluence drives the global displacement of land use.” Global Environmental Change 23.2 (2013): 433-438.
4Stephen Hawking, The Guardian, 29th July 2016
5Scarborough, Peter, et al. “Dietary greenhouse gas emissions of meat-eaters, fish-eaters, vegetarians and vegans in the UK.” Climatic change 125.2 (2014): 179-192.

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