Step 1 - Waking Up
The first step in solving any problem is first understanding it. In the case of energy and its role in our lives and in the economy we have a basic problem in understanding the problem. Unlike our native senses of physics (called folk or naïve physics), our inherent theory of mind (sometimes called folk psychology), and our naturalist intelligence (or folk biology), we have no inherent intuitions about energy other than the life mandate to get more of it! Our need is to replenish our internal energy supplies by whatever means necessary. That's it. This is non-negotiable (OK there have been cases of people going on hunger strikes for causes, but the fact that they can get sick and/or die is the exception that proves the rule!)
What we are missing is a folk thermodynamics, an intuition about how energy behaves in nature that would cause us to pay attention to things like conservation and proper budgeting. We are driven, psychologically speaking, to find food, shelter (warmth), and water. Everything else is secondary. Beyond these basic needs, modern humans have sought comfort and convenience as well as quickness in getting things done by exploiting new energy sources and clever inventions. Our native sense of energy is based on the fact that the sun always is there to give warmth and cause our food to grow. Our built-in instincts cause us to get testy when there are long bouts of poor harvests. But the sun has never failed to shine, even if there are cloudy days. Crop failures are generally due to drought or pestilence. The sun is always there for us. So, naturally, we evolved nothing more than expectations that energy is always available, we just have to find it and exploit it.
And our instincts about other resources are pretty much based on following the game. That is, as hunter-gathers, we evolved to pick up and move when local resources depleted. There was always somewhere else we could go when we ran out of stuff where we happened to be. We might have to fight off someone else to gain access, but there was more stuff to be had somewhere, when there were so many fewer of us anywhere.
It took a long hard battle of minds against the oddities of nature to find out that energy had a peculiar character about it. Unlike sand flowing through the narrow part of an hourglass and is simply still just sand but no longer on the top, when energy flows and does work, it changes irreversibly to a non-recoverable form. Energy and matter are alike in only one regard — they are both conserved. You can't make more matter nor can you make more energy. Neither are destroyed in any ultimate sense. One can, in theory be converted to the other (and we do know how to generate energy from mass via E = mc2) but nothing can increase or decrease the energy/mass of the universe, so far as we know.
As energy flows through material configurations it converts from one form to another, like light to electricity (photovoltaic effect). But the total amount of electricity coming out of the conversion is not equal to the total amount of light that went in — it is less and the amount of difference is dependent on the efficiency of conversion. The balance dissipates as unusable heat. If you could gather all the waste heat and the electricity and measure the total amount of energy it would be the same as the light that you started with. But energy 'quality' degrades with each conversion and unit of work done. Quality here means that you can get the energy to do work for you. Low temperature (waste) heat does no useful work so it is a loss every time.
This characteristic of energy is formalized in the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Sometimes referred to as the law of increasing entropy, it simply says that you will ALWAYS lose some energy in a system each time matter is moved or changed. It also means that, in a closed system, where nothing gets in or out, the contained energy will eventually distribute evenly throughout the system and thereafter nothing will change (known as disorder).
We humans have no folk second law to help us intuitively understand this insidious aspect of energy. Which is why we are in the fix we are in today with respect to having wantonly over exploited fossil fuels, increased our numbers beyond what the daily solar influx alone can support, and now expecting some technological magic to save us. We hold out for the latter precisely because we can't understand the Second Law automatically. We hold onto our profligate wastage, pumping oil like there is no tomorrow, discounting the future, because we don't really grasp the First Law (conservation).
In the end we will either use science, that won us the formal knowledge of thermodynamics, to regulate our uses of energy, or we will succumb to the Laws the hard way. There is enough sunlight to support a much smaller population using energy wisely. There is even enough fossil fuel to supply particular needs that can't be met easily by sunlight, or, more importantly, to help bootstrap us into the technologies needed to wisely gather and use sunlight (which includes hydroelectric and wind turbines). But only if we are far fewer in numbers. Even the burning of carbon-based fuels would not be a problem for global warming if it were restricted to a few wise uses.
The choice is ours to make. We know enough to understand the consequences of our choice. We are clever enough to implement a plan of action if we choose to act. But do we have the collective wisdom to do so? Will we wake up to understanding the problem?